App Highlights: Best of the iPad in 2017

Best Of The Ipad In 2017

Here come the lists, finally. I held off a little, given the ubiquity of listicles in the first few weeks of the year. That’s my excuse anyway. I considered revisiting the essentials list in its entirety, but decided to deliver something more concise with a take on the best iPad apps in 2017. Expect a more comprehensive resource when school’s back in below the equator. In the meantime, these are a few of the highlights from 2017, broken down by device. Starting with the iPad.

Breaking the Mac Habit

DEVONthink To Go

It might have started life as a companion, but DEVONthink to Go has helped break some of my Mac dependence over the past year. Even without some of the automated sorting the macOS app is known for, it houses a lot of neat tricks. Encrypted storage, intelligent search queries, url x-callback automation are some of the highlights. If you want to learn more about what it can do, I posted a detailed introduction here. The Appademic also happens to have five licenses up for grabs at the moment.

Working Copy

Only recently have I started to need tools like this. Now that I do, I can fully appreciate what an excellent piece of software this is. If learning the basics of Git is straightforward enough, it can just as easily be complicated by a messy client. Working Copy is easy to pickup, and a pleasure to use. It is now fully integrated with the Files app, supports drag and drop, and Markdown syntax highlighting . The excellent documentation means I fumble around in the dark a lot less. I have gone from thinking I had to be on a Mac to work with Git, to preferring my iPad so I can use this app.

Best Ipad Apps 2017 Working Copy
Working Copy is my favourite Git client on any platform

Ferrite

While music is well served, iOS is still under developed as a professional audio platform. It borders on silly that the very platform to popularise podcasts, still lags when it coms to creating them. Much of the technology required for the necessary audio routing already exists, but hasn’t yet been applied. Ferrite is both uniquely focused on voice, and wonderfully tuned for touch interaction. If you’re doing any kind of interview work, podcasting, or voice capture on iOS, this is where to do it.

Ferrite Best Ipad Apps 2017
Ferrite is the best audio editor for voice work on iOS

 

Peace of Mind

Things 3

This is cheating a little. I’ve really only been using Things for a couple of months. I tried to avoid the bandwagon, but trialing it on macOS convinced me it was a better solution for me than Todoist. Although there are features of Todoist I miss, in the end it was overkill for my needs. Things doesn’t require as much tuning, and gets out of my way more. I have a more detailed account on the differences between Todoist and Things on the way soon. It made the list, because despite not using it long, it has been a positive change. The less time I use in an app like this the better.

1Password

Sometimes software can take care of annoying details in a way that makes you forget how the most trivial things can become annoying. Agile Bits introduced an ingenious innovation into their apps last year that auto-copies information. It makes logging into apps easier, when they haven’t bothered adding generic password extension. Even better, it auto-copies one-time passwords to automatically populate two-factor logins.

Writing

Writers are spoilt for choice on iOS now. I have pointed out a number of times what a good writing tool the iPad is. The user experience encourages the kind of focus that writing depends on, in a way a Mac does not.

Ulysses

I’d like to be more of a purist with plain text, but I finally succumbed to the charms of this app. While I’m pleased to have Scrivener on iOS, I don’t like that it only syncs with Dropbox, and the development is a little asymmetric with macOS. The same is not true of Ulysses. Admittedly, I use the apps quite differently, and my thesis ultimately resides in Scrivener. All other project based writing, long-form, or anything for this site, it’s all in Ulysses now. It’s also worth adding I find the Ulysses WordPress integration works so well now that I no longer need Workflow to fill that roll. I get access to Ulysses on both macOS, and iOS as a Setapp subscriber.

 

Best Ipad Apps 2017 Ulysses
Ulysses has become my default writing app on iOS

iA Writer

For composing anything that I consider singular, or outside of any ongoing project. For short work, or external editing of files from DEVONthink, and even for writing email at times. I use iA Writer. Writing in a different app can be a little like a change of scenery, sometimes it works at breaking the valve. There are a lot of good text editors on iOS, but none of them can match iA Writer for minimalism and typographic design. If you’ve never written in a plain text editor before, this is your gateway drug.

Despite the Trolls

Apollo

Until this turned up, I had all but stopped using Reddit on iOS. Apollo has quickly gained popularity, and with good reason. It is the first app of its kind to have a truly native user experience. Built by a former Apple insider with meticulous attention to detail, it is now the only way use Reddit. In the developer’s own words, ’the goal was to envision what a Reddit app would look like if Apple themselves built it.’ He nailed it.

Best Ipad Apps 2017 Apollo
Apollo has become the only way I use Reddit

 

 

Mind Maps and Scribbles

MindNode 5

The recently released version 5 added a number of nice touches to an already excellent app. I tend to gravitate more towards outlining than mind mapping, but digital mind mapping is now better than it’s ever been. With the faster refresh rate on the iPad Pro, the experience is much more tactile and enjoyable. After flipping between different apps for structured mind mapping, I have happily settled on this for now.

Best Ipad Apps 2017 Mindnode 5
Subtle details in MindNode 5 have improved an already excellent app

 

Linea

I’m no artist, but sometimes a truly blank page is the best place for scribbling ideas. In fact, a purist take on mind mapping would reject a purpose built app. A blank page, and something to mark it with, are all you need. I used to use the free Paper app, by Fifty Three for this, which is still more than up to the job. Linea is a delightfully restrained app. Minimal, responsive, and easy to use. If I have something to scribble, this is where it happens.

Note-taking

MyScript Nebo

If you have an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, Nebo ‘s  handwriting recognition and ink engine is as good as it gets. The rate of development is a little disappointing, no doubt because this app is something of a showcase for the technology that underpins it. The way I use it, the handwriting recognition matters more than having features you find in apps like GoodNotes and Notability. Most, if not all of the digital handwriting I do at the moment happens in Nebo.

Best Ipad Apps 2017 Nebo
Nebo's handwriting recognition is still the best available, it borders on magic that it understand my chicken scribble

Notebooks

I mention this in passing so often, it remains hard to categorise. I’m including it again for it under research, because ultimately that is how I use it. In reality, it’s a note-taking app first and foremost. Notebooks allows me to set the content as tasks, so if I have a project that requires a specific reading list I will add the documents to Notebooks and setup a reminder schedule. It means I can mark material off as I have gone through it, this feature makes it a unique app for research and study. I’ll admit this is a peculiar part of my workflow, as eventually I archive everything in DEVONthink anyway. Most people would only need one or the other, but I’m a weirdo like that.

Best Ipad Apps 2017 Notebooks
Notebooks is a powerful, and unique note-taking app with a touch of GTD

Filling the Gaps

Workflow

By now this is getting boring, but it honestly was one of the most important apps I used last year. Perhaps because I finally feel I have started to get the hang of it. There is a way to go before I can start making paginated workflows, but I’m getting more out of this app than ever. By now it is so essential that I’m starting to understand the obsession about its future. One can only hope Apple’s acquisition of Workflow — and it’s clearly brilliant developers — means the future of iOS automation is bright.

Copied

Again, this is not a revelation. However, I’m putting Copied on the list because of how much it holds things together. Drag and drop has replaced some of its functionality, but I still rely on it a lot. Apple’s continuity can be flaky at times, and the iCloud clipboard just stops working for no apparent reason. Copied’s merge templates, and other automation features are excellent.

Gladys

Yes, me too. I have tried a bunch of these shelf apps, it turns out this one is popular for a reason. At first I thought I wanted an app that supported multiple shelves, until I realised it would become another place gather unnecessary digital junk. It will no doubt be sherlocked eventually, but for now it does exactly what I need it to.

Scratching the Surface

The iPad has always been well covered for creative apps. Thinking of the best iPad apps 2017 produced,  a couple come to mind that could be considered milestones for iOS.

Affinity Photo

I haven’t yet scratched the surface of this app, what little I have done with it has blown my tiny mind. Every now and then we get pitched an app that will supposedly push the iPad from recreational device to serious professional machine. Notwithstanding that fact that such developments are generally incremental, Affinity Photo taps much further into the potential of the hardware. In ambition at least, it is a genuinely professional app to rival desktop software.

Best Ipad Apps 2017 Affinity Photo
Affinity Photo breaks new ground for professional software on iOS

 

BeatMaker 3

The iPad has always been a brilliant music device, even if it remains underrated. I’ve gathered a silly number of music apps for iPad Pro. That you can still pick up digital instruments for a fraction of the price they cost on desktop computers is too hard to ignore. While I could highlight any number of impressive debuts from last year, if the goal is to name just one that stood out, for me it was Beatmaker 3. Intua have built the kind of hybrid digital audio workstation that feels uniquely suited to iOS. It has its quirks, but this app is epic fun.

Best Ipad Apps 2017 Beatmaker
BeatMaker 3 was a highlight among the many wonderful music apps released on iOS in 2017

 

 

iPad Hacks: Migrating Evernote Data on iOS

Migrate Data From Evernote Without Mac.png

A few days back I posted a fairly detailed introduction to DEVONthink to Go for iOS. To follow that up, I promised some options for iOS users wanting to leave Evernote, and bring their data with them. Whether you want to go all in with DEVONthink, or you have in mind another app, the question is how to migrate Evernote data to another iOS app.

On macOS, you have a number of options. The most simple and clean being a direct transfer within DEVONthink Pro itself. Managing this process without a Mac, on the other hand, requires more creative thinking. What follows are some options for iOS only users wanting to export all Evernote data. DEVONthink is the endpoint in this case, but the process can easily be adapted for apps like Notebooks, Bear, or even Apple Notes.

Some of the Gotchas

I’ll admit I’m fortunate I could use a Mac to do this, but it’s not quite as difficult on iOS as it once was. Some advice out there will have you believe otherwise, but you can migrate your data without having to do it one note at a time. It is worth considering these potential stumbling blocks before you do it. I would pay special attention to the data you consider most important in Evernote, either tag it as such, or place it in a specific notebook. Reading on, you might also want to delimit different data types, such as text, PDFs, and images.

The arrival of drag and drop had me wondering if we could simply drag the notes across to another app. I will come back to this below. You can bring drag and drop come into play, it just won’t solve the problem on its own. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as dragging all your notes from one place to another. If you try to transfer directly from Evernote, these are some of the frustrations you will encounter:

  • Notes in Evernote are stored in a proprietary rich text format. If you try to drag notes, some apps like Apple Notes, will refuse the transfer when you try to drop them. Others, like DEVONthink, will allow you to drop the note, but will strip all the formatting. That might be fine for text only notes, but everything else is lost. The worst part is losing all your links.
  • If you try dragging a note with an attachment, you will get the title and nothing else.
  • If you can open the note and drag the attachment itself, it will come across no problem. Which is fine if you only want to drag a couple of items. I have hundreds of PDF attachments in Evernote.
  • When drag and drop doesn’t work, you might think you could use the share sheet. You’d be right, if you want to choose between exporting web links for notes, or sending each individual note via email in Apple Mail.
  • Evernote is mired to a functionality issue that, until recently, has bloodied the foreheads of iOS users. It doesn’t do multiple files.
how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
If you're dragging PDFs out of Evernote, make sure you drag the attachment itself, or you will end up with a plain text note with only the title

Yep, it’s painful. Which is why so many people hit these walls and keep the status quo. 1 Thankfully, we now have tools that can help overcome these problems. If you really want to migrate your Evernote data to another iOS app, you can.

Using Workflow

The Workflow route is straightforward enough. As alluded to above, depending on how precious you are about the data, it might require some preparation in Evernote. Whether you want to do this could come down to the number of notes you have, but discriminating by notebook or tag can help get better results. Tedious work on iOS, I know. You can always go nuts, and deal with the consequences later, whatever your destination. I’ll confess, that’s how I roll.

I have played around with this for long enough to feel confident advising a uniform approach to importing notes, whether you choose to bring them across as text, or PDFs. Technically Workflow, and DEVONthink can both handle the rich media that Evernote stores. Setting up a complex workflow with IF conditionals is possible, but you can end up with a lot of wacky results in amongst the ones that transfer properly. Likewise, encoding the rich text itself via URL isn’t as consistent I’d like.

Bear in mind, you’re not deleting the data in Evernote through this process. Even if you proceed after testing, and you’re still not happy with the results, you can try the other method below. 2 The best results I get via Workflow are from encoding all the data as a PDFs. That won’t suit everyone.

Alternatively, you can do the same thing using Markdown, but any PDFs in Evernote won’t be encoded, they’ll come across blank. This is where that preparation comes in. If you have separated data types by tag, or notebook, you can run the different workflows individually. You can apply the same logic for images if you wish, although I haven’t set that up myself as I never stored any in Evernote.

how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
Separating the workflows by data type gets much better results

No doubt somebody is reading this thinking the workflows don’t need to be separated. That’s true, or at least it should be. As I mentioned earlier, my efforts at combining them turned out some garbage. If you’ve had more success, I would love to hear about it. Read on, and you will see the workflows can be combined more easily when taking a different route.

Disclaimers

The workflow will make you specify the number of notes you want to export/import. This is a limitation of the API, you have to specify a number. It’s a good idea to test this anyway, so set the number low to start with.

These workflows also leave the ‘title’ parameter blank, as there seems to be a bug in one of the apps along the chain that interrupts the URL encoding — or decoding. 3 I will update the workflows when I’m certain the bug is squashed, but read on as there are better options below.

You can adapt this workflow for you own needs, of course. If you want to know more about the DEVONthink URL scheme, the documentation is included with the app. Or you can get it here

Evernote to DEVONthink Workflows

Instructions, or TL;DR

Optional: Organise your Evernote data by data types using tags, or notebooks for Text and PDF 4. This is a giant pain, so before you go ahead and do it, make sure you have checked out the alternatives below. Either way, the process is as follows:

  • Download the Workflows above
  • If you don’t want to distinguish the data types, just run the PDF workflow for everything to come across as PDFs.
  • If you have separated the data types, run each workflow separately.

Using a Cloud Service with Workflow

This route adds more complexity, but it gives you more flexibility as a result. There are some concessions with the form the data is transferred in, but that is true of all these methods. I have played around with a few different services, the main prerequisite being ease of use on iOS. A lot of web apps have awkward UI for touch control.

Google cloud transfer for Evernote, and you will most likely find results dominated by MultCloud. I can’t recommend it for this job, to start it’s a poster candidate for shitty web UI for a touch interface. But, the real reason is MultCloud transfers without conversion, so you end up with a bunch of ENML documents. 5 Outside Evernote they’re all but useless. At best, MultCloud is a backup option.

CloudHQ is also awful to look at, but it has much more granular options for the transfer, and the real kicker, it will actually work. You can use a free account with CloudHQ to export your notes in PDF, plain-text format, or both. It will export everything to Dropbox, or your pick of service. If anyone is wondering how this fits with my thoughts on cloud storage, data in Evernote is already insecure. This is about changing your ways.

Once you have everything transferred, you will do the same thing as above. However, there is some good news. The DropBox API will expose a lot more information to workflow from the initial call, so it is easier to set conditions in the workflow to combine the actions. In other words, if you transfer the data to a storage service first, you can run a single workflow from there.

how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app

Dropbox to DEVONthink Workflow

This workflow is setup to import PDFs, and Plain text files. Migrate your data from Evernote to Dropbox via CloudHQ

Drag and Drop for Best Results

Drag and has made a lot of tasks on iOS much easier than ever before, with transferring data among them. With the help of the files, you can forget workflow altogether, and use drag and drop to manage the last part of the migration. The first step is the same as above, prepare and transfer your data from Evernote to cloud storage.

You can do this with with Dropbox, or Box. I haven’t tested it with any other cloud services, so your mileage may vary elsewhere. If you’re using free plans, it’s worth knowing the box free plan gives your 10gb of storage – the maximum file size is 250mb, but that won’t be a problem here, in fact unless you are storing large video files it is unlikely to be a problem ever. 6

The key is how you set the apps up. You probably know by now that integration with the Files app can be hit and miss. This process exemplifies the difference between Files, and the more traditional Finder on macOS. You might expect you can open up Files and drag documents from one service to another, like you would between folders on macOS, but if that works it all it is very limited.

For example, if you try to drag multiple files after selected them via the select function, you won’t be able to drop them anywhere. However, if you collect the files together by taping on them one at a time, then the files will stack together and you can drop them no problem. Then there is the matter of how folders must be setup to accept dragged items; the inbound folder accepting the files has to be added to the favourites section of the Files sidebar, to make it available as a drop destination. When you do get it to work with the files app exclusively, other strange things can happen. Like the metadata being out of whack.

how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
If you want to drag and drop within the files app itself, the destination folder must be added to favourites

The point I’m making is the process is more complicated than it seems. Illustrative of how much room for improvement remains in the brave new world of iOS Files. But, this is only true if you are trying to manage the entire process in the Files app itself. The story is completely different if you you start in the Files app, and drop your notes in the third-party app itself.

how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
The best, and easiest option is to select all the required files and drag them out of Files, and into the third-party app

Instructions:

  • You can skip organising your Evernote data type for this method, it will make no difference
  • Use CloudHQ  to transfer data to Dropbox
  • Open up the files app. Select the notes your want to transfer, and dry them into the new app.
how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
The file provider will begin the transfer even if you are only really dragging metadata

Other Apps as a Destination

Using DEVONthink as a destination, the results have been gapped doing things this way. The beauty of this method, however, is any app that accepts compatible data — and supports drag and drop — can be setup to receive the notes. She of the more popular note-taking apps on iOS will make the process even easier by providing an import function. Both GoodNotes, and Notability will let you import directly from cloud storage, without any further rigmarole. You can use drag and drop with both apps too, but you don’t need to.

how to migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
GoodNotes has excellent drag and drop support, but you don't necessarily need to use it. Both GoodNotes and Notability have import functions built in.

If you want to migrate data from Evernote to alternate notes apps, all you need to do is transfer it via the CloudHQ method above, then import the notes via the import function of the app in question. If the app is only using iCloud, you should still be able to use the Files app to mitigate that problem. If not, I have setup a quick and dirty workflow to transfer from Dropbox to iCloud, you can get it here 7

To-Do

Evernote’s API offers potential for users migrating data. Like most folks, I’m a little light on time to do this sort of thing right now. I’m not making any promises, but I’m half thinking I will play around with both Workflow, and Pythonista over the holidays to see what can be done. 8 Anyone familiar with this site will also know how much I admire the Notebook app. It also has an excellent custom URL scheme. I intend to use it for setting up more workflows.

Even though I have already transferred the bejesus out of data from Evernote, I will still mess around with these workflows some more. If you’re interested in how any of this this progresses, signup to the mailing list. Or, I will post it here at a later date.

  1. I should point out here that my leaving Evernote had nothing to do with the price of a subscription.
  2. I do think it gets better results
  3. It's most likely DEVONthink, the developers assure me it's not happening in the next build
  4. You can do images too, but you will have to adapt a Workflow for that
  5. Evernote markup language
  6. This is something that appears to confuse a lot of people. Box don’t do themselves any favours by wording it strangely either. The site says 250mb maximum upload. What it means is file size, not transfer limit.
  7. If you just want to archive your Evernote data in iCloud, this will work for that too.
  8. There are some existing scripts, but Evernote has moved to a new API. I haven’t yet found any in current working condition. Then again, I haven’t looked too closely yet.

Advanced Data Management for iOS with DEVONthink

Devonthink To Go.png

This has been a while coming. 1 Having mentioned this app a number of times, I haven’t yet offered a detailed account — something it thoroughly deserves. Those mentions have prompted a reasonable question, is it worth buying DEVONthink to Go for iOS if you don’t have a Mac? The short answer is yes. Qualified by what you want to do with it, but you won’t be short on possibilities. Whether you’re looking for a private Evernote alternative, want to improve your digital file management, better organise research material, or you want secure storage and advanced search capabilities for your data. There is much that DEVONthink can do on iOS. Of course, that leads us to a much longer answer — and, believe it or not, this is a mere introduction.

On Being Unique

Most of the apps we use on iOS can be distinguished by category, or specific task. They’re often things we need, but as long as you have something in that category, capable of a specific job, the app itself comes down to personal preference. It’s true we’re not always spoilt for choice — and I’ll happily point out that some things are better than others. Nonetheless, if it’s a PDF reader, notes app, text editor, or email client, they’re all interchangeable to some degree. Whether you prefer GoodNotes to Notability, or PDF Expert to PDFpen, either will do the job. Until something better comes along, that is. 2

There is a different kind of app where interchangeability no longer applies. Or at least, where it’s not quite so simple. They’re few and far between, but there are some obvious examples. Take Drafts for iOS, sure it’s a text editor — and there are plenty of those — yet, that seemingly simple function belies a unique automation engine for text based productivity. Having popularised the x-callback-url system on iOS, Drafts is as much an inception as it is an app. 3 By all accounts, inter-app automation via URL was only half a hack until x-callback allowed apps to return the call — so to speak.

The likes of 1Writer and Editorial can be loosely grouped with drafts. Like Drafts, 1Writer uses javascript automation, but more to bridge the gap from text editor to word processor. While Editorial is a high-spec graphical automation tool for manipulating text with Python. Then there is Pythonista. I can’t think of anything else like it. Not really. There are other code editors, but Pythonista can be invoked as an extension to perform scripted automation. Something that seemed at one time like it would never arrive on iOS. How Pythonista ever sneaked past moderation remains a mystery. Thankfully it did, and it remains a fixture of advanced automation on the iPad.

Perhaps the most obvious example is Workflow. Apple swallowed it whole to make an entire subset of fan-geeks exhale a coordinated, and confused sigh. What will happen? The optimists are betting on some form of native integration with iOS, while the half-empty crowd are clasping their hands and pursing their lips for a round of tutting on podcasts. Jokes aside, if Apple ever took Workflow offline, they wouldn’t so much be shooting themselves in the foot as they would be cleaving the entire leg off the idea of an iPad as a serious working device. These are all unique, and important apps.

Before I digress any further, I’m trying to provide some context for DEVONthink to Go. 4 Both to place it in good company, and to make the case for how unique it is. To view it as nothing more than a companion app for the macOS versions of DEVONthink would be a mistake. Sure, it can be used like that. As far as companions go, it’s a particularly powerful one. The iOS version, however, can stand on its own. It is something of a category in itself, given its crossover functionality. This is quite an achievement, especially as the app was completely re-written for version 2.0. 5

When used to its potential, DEVONthink can be just as important as the apps mentioned above on iOS. It's easily as unique. But like anything, it comes down to how you intend to use it. Implementation is key. Getting the most from any of the DEVONthink apps means putting them at the centre of your workflow for capturing, storing, and retrieving data. DEVONthink to Go is no different.

All in the Tags

Amid the changes in iOS 11 were significant improvements for managing files. There is no doubt the Files app — even in these early stages — is a welcome and useful development. The caveat is recognising where some of Apple’s long held resistance to such an app came from. For example, organising files and folders — stacking iCloud with a folder hierarchy — is now easier than ever. Yet, to do so embraces an outdated method of organising data. Where research and study is concerned, how one archives important material is a serious consideration. This is not to say you shouldn’t use folders, but if you’re handling a lot of data, it can get very messy.

This is where tags come in. A shallow file structure with carefully chosen tags adds depth to your metadata, giving you more surface area for search queries. Tagging gives you more hooks, but less visual confusion. Not only does the Files app allow more fine control for folders, users now have immediate access to Apple’s native tagging system. Whether carried over from macOS, or implemented locally on an iOS device, tagging can be utilised for search queries and data retrieval.

Apple’s implementation of tagging across platforms has been casual at best. It’s kind to say it remains a work in progress. However, if only a gentle nod, it is still an acknowledgement of the utility in tagging for organising data. Ironically, if you find tagging useful and want to get more out of it, then you will need to go beyond the files app.

This is just one area that DEVONthink shines. Tagging is part of the DEVONthink DNA. Some aspects of native iOS tagging remain mysterious, but DEVONthink is smart enough to import the metadata applied in the Files app. Unfortunately, it doesn’t yet work the other way around.

DEVONthink's tagging is much more comprehensive than the native Apple offering

 

A Secure Central Repository

While organising a folder hierarchy in iCloud Drive is much easier with Files, ironically that app makes it less necessary to do so. I tend to work in the DEVONthink app directly, but DEVONthink data in Files is incredibly useful, and not just for quick access.

Data stored in DEVONthink can be accessed directly through the Files app

This is something I mentioned in my post on cloud storage. Regardless of the storage provider, by storing data in DEVONthink you can couple the convenience of the Files app with strong client-side encryption. The previous post talks about syncing with macOS, but the same applies if you are only using iOS. The data is encrypted and decrypted on your device, making it secure during transfer, and at rest in the cloud. From that post,

If you are already a user on macOS, adding DEVONthink to Go to your workflow is straightforward. The database itself is encrypted, and the app supports pretty much any file type you can throw at it. Devon Technologies are one of the oldest Apple software developers around. So it is no surprise to see them embracing the new Files App. This means DEVONthink to go can be used as a file provider. So you can store your files safely, and edit them in place using third-party apps. In my opinion, this is a pretty sound option. In many cases, it could be enough. If it is, managing files through DEVONthink will avoid the need for a dropbox alternative.

DEVONthink is also very smart about storage, giving you the option to keep metadata locally, and download files on demand. Or if you prefer, you can store everything locally. As the engine is built to sync databases individually, there is even a little storage hack — if you are so inclined.

Each database can synced using the same, or different cloud services. That means you can use the free tier of different services to save on the cost of storage. Admittedly the supported services are still limited, but if you are just starting they will be more than adequate. Perhaps more to the point, it also means you can sync multiple copies of databases, adding redundancy to your backups. This includes backing everything up to iCloud.6

Backing up data on iOS requires users to think differently, especially if you are not using a Mac or a PC as the mother ship. DEVONthink is one of few apps that can give you extra peace of mind.

Advanced Search

All but the most perfunctory writing requires research. Couple that to the focused nature of an iPad workflow, and you have a use case for a purpose built repository. Writers using Scrivener have tools built in to that app, but while they might be enough for some writers, that research is — in practical terms — silo’ed by project. I like to have that material available more generally, whether during, or after a project is complete. 7 Spotlight is a great tool for search, DEVONthink is better.

DEVONthink is built for search. A consistent naming convention, and tags can only be helpful to maintaining a research database. DEVONthink comes preloaded with tools that will either compliment that process, or help you retrieve data regardless. With Boolean search operators, and parentheses, refining search terms will return items with more specificity. You will find more, and lose less.

Search queries can be constructed using the boolean operators AND, OR, NOT, and the truly helpful NEAR. For example, I might remember that I saved an article that included the phrase ‘Why Aristotle was never quite as awesome as Plato’. I can search for the document with: NEAR (Aristotle Plato, 10), and DEVONthink will return items that have the keywords Aristotle and Plato within 10 words of each other. Of course, you can go much further by changing search queries together.

With boolean search operators, users can construct sophisticated search queries

My first example returns a lot of results, but let’s say I remember it was an informal source. I could construct a search query to eliminate results that have a keyword to indicate it comes from an academic journal. I would use something like NEAR (Aristotle Plato, 10) NOT Journal. I could use a DOI number, or Abstract as elements common to those kinds of results.

Even if by trial and error, the ability to construct granular search queries makes DEVONthink to Go an invaluable tool. If you are a user of DEVONthink Pro on macOS, you should know the query syntax is a little different. It can be frustrating if you don’t know that, but the simplified version for iOS makes sense. While accurate searches are crucial, there is a swiftness involved with mobile input. The developers are on record as saying an alternative syntax is on the roadmap, to make the apps more consistent. The existing syntax would remain, which is a good thing to my mind. I have never had so much success at finding what I need among my haphazard collections.

PDF Management

I have consistently recommended PDF Expert for a stand-alone PDF reader on iOS. Until recently, together with the free Documents app from Readdle, and Papers 3 for iOS, that was the extent of my PDF workflow. It is not so clear cut anymore. For one thing, the makers of the PDF framework PSPDFkit released their free PDF Viewer app, making powerful PDF management available to users for nothing. But there are other reasons, one of them is DEVONthink to Go.

DEVONthink to Go includes a comprehensive PDF editor, with excellent Apple Pencil support

 

Some advice I give out freely but struggle to keep is, try to minimise the apps you use for essentially the same task. Managing PDFs for your research can get out of hand if you don’t have a clear idea of how you organise them. There is no problem with using a third-party PDF app with DEVONthink to Go.The support for editing files in place means you can edit files in other apps, without having to copy them to another app. However, DEVONthink’s built in PDF editor is more than capable. It gets out of your way, includes excellent Apple Pencil support, and has all the requisite annotations tools. You can edit the documents themselves, even add pages if necessary. Sometimes you might need to do more with annotations, but that is about the extent of the limitations.

These are considerations to make if you are assessing the in-app purchase. Especially if you are setting your iPad up for the first time, it could make a lot of sense to go all in and keep your document editing and annotations in one place.

Note Taking

The actual in-app note-taking features are quite sparse, but functionality of the app makes up for that in other ways. I have been making a point of laying out a use case where DEVONthink is a central hub for storing data, but it can be a point of creation too.

DEVONthink to go supports rich text, plain text, and markdown, with the ability to capture, read, edit, or create within the app itself. The editor in the app itself is very basic, so I tend to use a third-party text editor. The ability to edit files in place means you can use whatever app you choose, as long as it supports file providers. In my experience to date, the app with the nicest integration is iA Writer, especially since the recent update. Another with reliable support is 1Writer.

Notes stored in DEVONthink can be created, and edited in third-party text editors like iA Writer

Editing in place means you are opening the file in your choice of editor, and the changes are reflected back in the database. Until recently, this wasn’t really possible. DEVONthink used a workaround it called ‘round trip’, which worked, but wasn’t ideal. Once the file is the database, the changes will be reflected whether you edit it in the third-party editor, or in DEVONthink itself. If you know anything about iOS system extensions, you will now that there are two types of actions in the share menu for files. One opens the file in another app, the other copies the file into the other apps storage. Edit in place means you are not making a copy.

There have have been reports of strange behaviour, although I have only experienced it a couple of times myself. It seems to happen more when using the share extension, rather than starting the edit in the text editor first, and using the files integration. It is also worth pointing out that all of this functionality is new, as are the frameworks in iOS that support it. There are a few bugs in the system, but nothing catastrophic.

This might appear to work back to front at first, but if you think of DEVONthink as the storage facility, it will sink in. Where it gets messy is if you try to edit the same file with multiple editors, you will end up with conflicts and error messages. My best advice is to be consistent.

1Writer is another excellent text editor that can be used with DEVONthink

Replacing EverNote

This is something that comes up a lot in relation to DEVONthink apps. Except for a couple of passing comments, there is conspicuous absence of Evernote coverage on this site. It’s not that I don’t think Evernote is useful. If anything were a gateway drug to digital productivity apps, Evernote is it. I was once a heavy user. The idea behind Evernote is to throw everything you ever come across at it, it can even be therapeutic for a digital pack rat who can’t let anything go. Clip it, and forget; or come back to if you will.

DEVONthink to Go has a powerful web clipper capable of replacing Evernote

If the defining Evernote feature is its clipper, that can be a problem, as there is nothing judicious about the process. Capturing information is ridiculously easy with Evernote. DEVONthink can operate on the same principle — if you wish — only completely private. The DEVONthink clipper might seem basic 8, but it is a powerful little extension. With the extensive automation feature on iOS, you can customise and extend its capabilities to suit your own needs.

Unlike Evernote documents are not stored with DEVONthink in a proprietary format, so your data doesn’t feel so captive. If you’re a macOS user getting your notes out of Evernote is not difficult. 9 Yet, the more material you store there, the more reason you have to be nervous about the portability of that data. This is a double edged sword for Evernote and some users. The more you get drawn in, the harder it is to leave, and yet if you have a lot of important data there you’ll start to think about what might happen to it.

I was concerned about securing the future of my own access to my data, but ultimately it was Evernote’s access to that data that provided the final push. What promoted me to jump was the increasingly creepy feeling I had about their privacy oscillations. Not long before all the hullabaloo about flip-flopping over their privacy policy , I was one of the users hit by a bug that deleted attachments from certain notes. I was among a group of users who received a year’s free premium subscription by way of apology. Ironically, the only thing I used Evernote for over the course of that year was to export my data.

Moving out

Truthfully, I hardly ever used Evernote to take notes. As I think many people do, I used it like a database. Moving that workflow to DEVONthink is very simple. Although, even if I still throw a lot at DEVONthink, I tend to do it with a little more foresight. That you can delineate types of data within a hierarchy that goes all the way to database level, means I don’t have the overwhelming sense that my research data is being polluted by gift ideas, and tutorials for obscure automations that I’ll probably never use. As for the data itself, I can still have the convenience of cloud storage, only now it’s encrypted and I can choose how, and what I want to synchronise.

These things are just as true for an iOS only workflow as they are for a full blown DEVONthink Office pro user archiving their email. There remains a problem, however. As I alluded to above, getting your data out of Evernote, and into DEVONthink on the Mac is a trivial matter. DEVONthink makes it very simple, with Evernote API integration. Without a desktop of sone form in the middle, however, the same is not true for iOS users. The pressure points for going iPad only are now much fewer than ever, but there remain a couple. I often mention citations, then there is this kind of data transfer.

There are workarounds for this. If you’re considering it, you’ll be happy to learn I have you covered. I was going to include the options, with different instructions and a couple of workflows I have built in this post, but I took a look at how long it is getting and broke it off into a seperate piece. It will go up not long after this.

Automation Meets Drag and Drop

Speaking of Workflow, an area of considerable value to an iOS only working life is automation. While the default iOS interaction model of one app at a time has been supplemented with multitasking features, the secondary, and even tertiary apps are almost exclusively invoked as part of a singular, focused task. 10 The benefit, whether intentional or not, is the iPad encourages a kind of focused work that more traditional computing interfaces do not. This is particular beneficial for academic work.

This is a curious strength, but as anyone who has done a lot of work on an iPad will tell you, it has its drawbacks. Thankfully, most if not all insurmountable problems have been made history by two significant developments to the platform. The first was the aforementioned Workflow app. That app might be somewhat indebted to the inception of x-callback — as mentioned above — but Workflow kicked the automation door off its hinges, and you get the sense something much more significant is coming from that app. 11 The second development happened this year: drag and drop.

DEVONthink Drag and Drop OCR
Using Scanbot to add OCR to files in DEVONthink via drag and drop

It’s amusing to think the introduction of copy and paste to the iPhone was once an event. 12 Copying and pasting was for so long a cumbersome, finicky, and frustrating. With the APIs available to developers in iOS 11, we can now evaluate particular apps on the basis of how well they take-up native technologies, rather than what they can do to overcome a lack of the same. It might have been a stretch to call url-based automation native, but Apple has burred that distinction with Workflow. Regardless, DEVONthink To Go is tapped into both of those features — automation, plus drag and drop — extensively.

Support for drag and drop makes data migration simple through the Files app, or elsewhere in iOS

Drag and drop is pretty self-explanatory, although the version we get with iOS 11 makes it feel like a completely new innovation. It’s deep integration, system wide even mitigates the need for some, albeit minor, automations. The kind of work one tends to do with DEVONthink, however, is ripe for automating. Something the developers are keenly aware of.

The URL scheme in DEVONthink to Go allows a user to build very specific automations for every data type a database can hold. This includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • Create images
  • Create Bookmarks
  • Create documents, including Plain-text, Markdown, Rich Text, and HTML
  • Create Web Archives
  • Retrieve file contents, and/or metadata
  • Perform custom searches

DEVONthink to Go will even perform service tasks via URL, such as indexing, syncing, and rebuilding caches, and you can change app settings. A lot these touches will be beyond most users needs, but it shows the meticulous level of detail that DEVON technologies drills into. More than that, these options provide troubleshooting options that may prove useful as databases become larger, and more devices are added to the chain. If you never use them, they offer security by way of both usefulness and insight into the forethought put to building the app. A it is intended for storing important information, all of this matters a great deal.

In Summary

To button this up, by returning to the question. Is DEVONthink to Go worth buying if you are an iOS only user? The answer remains, yes. Whether it is to act as a repository, a midway for automation, or to distill the need for multiple apps into one. There is a lot going on here. I’m not going to pretend it couldn’t be improved, but then DEVON technologies are nothing if not proactive in that regard.

I’ll also admit that I get more from this, as I use DEVONthink on both macOS and iOS, but that doesn’t diminish its role on my iPad by any stretch. If it were to go away, I would have a serious nuisance on my hands to pick apart the various things it does. As I’ve been writing this, the capacity of DEVONthink for working on iPad has had me peeling back layers of functionality.

At this point I’m aware of so many little things I have missed.This is especially true for Mac users, but that it should be obvious that was never the point of this post. At the moment I am experimenting with building more Workflows for DEVONthink to go, and that includes building on the options I have put together for referencing and citations. In the meantime, I have added a couple below that might be of interest.

Workflows

These workflows are experiments. I’m posting them here as examples of what you can do with automation and DEVONthink. They remain a work in progress. If you are inclined to improve upon them, I would love to hear about it. If you build your own, think about adding them to the Workflow Directory

  • DEVONwiki — DEVONthink's internal linking structure remains consistent across platforms. This means you can use DT2GO for setting up a wiki style research library that will work across devices. This workflow uses a note in Drafts to reference PDF documents added to a DEVONthink database, either directly from the web, or from another storage location. With x-callback URL you can maintain the note itself in DEVONthink. I will post variations of this in future.
  • RSS to DEVONthink — As one of its many powers on macOS, DEVONthink can be used as an RSS aggregator and reader. The iOS version doesn’t have the same feature, but we can achieve a similar result with Workflow. 13
  • Evernote Text to DEVONthink — I mentioned above, the trouble with getting your data from Evernote to DEVONthink on iOS without a desktop computer in the middle. This should be self-explanatory. Bear in mind it will only transfer text notes. I have a follow post in the works for a more thorough migration,

You can pick up DEVONthink to Go on the App Store for US$21.99, with an in-app purchase case of $11.99 for the pro package 14

Until next time, enjoy.

  1. Longer even, since I tried to stay off the internet as much as possible last week for fear of spoilers. Sadly, I’m not joking.
  2. Or something new and shiny at least
  3. Greg Pierce the developer wrote the spec for x-callback
  4. Forgiving the name, that is. I can’t imagine why DEVONthink iOS wasn’t enough.
  5. If you haven't looked at it since version 1, this is a completely different app 
  6. The architecture is currently incompatible for DEVONthink’s version of selective sync, so iCloud Drive is only supported for backup at the moment.
  7. I have the advantage of using a Mac here, I keep mot scrivener and DEVONthink research in sync with Hazel. Something I will post at a later date
  8. The mobile version at least
  9. For iOS see below
  10. The exception here might be picture in picture, but you get the point
  11. Or rather, the developers of that app. Now with Apple
  12. Or testament to the breakneck speed of development since then
  13. Note, depending on how the feed is setup you may need to make changes to this for the desired results
  14. PDF annotations, and selective sync

DEVONthink To Go updated for iPhone X, adds PDF and sheet editors

This round of updates sees DEVONthink To Go  updated for iPhone X, adding PDF and sheet editors. I mentioned DEVONthink to go as a novel solution for better data security recently. While that alone is a good reason to put it to use, it drastically undersells the apps all round utility. DEVON Technologies summarise the app like so:

DEVONthink To Go is DEVON technologies' document and information management solution for iOS. Serving as repository for a large variety of data types it lets users keep their important documents with them at all times. It offers a rich set of organizing features as well as built-in viewers and editors for many file formats. Document provider and file provider extensions make documents available in other apps, and an encrypted synchronization keeps all data in sync with other iOS devices as well as with its Mac counterpart, DEVONthink, without compromizing the user's privacy.

Apart from the obligatory iPhone X support. This update includes further improvements to File App integration, smarter PDF interactions and markup, new document editing capabilities for table data., and refinements to database syncing.

Effectively using DEVONthink apps is a huge topic, given what you can do with them. I have every intention of a deep dive on DEVONthink, when I can do it the justice it deserves. It is tidbits for the meantime. For users of DEVONthink on macOS, DEVONthink to Go is an ideal companion app. On its own merits, it is also an excellent self-contained solution for iPad first, or iOS only users. Now with drag and drop on iOS 11,  OCR integration with third-party apps like Scanbot is much easier. The excellent native x-callback-url support also makes DEVONthink to Go one of the best apps you will find for Workflow automation. All in all, you can set up a robust research system on iOS using DEVONthink. With, or without a Mac.

iPad Diaries: Working with Drag and Drop – Bear and Gladys – MacStories

Another link from MacStories. Now that the dust has settled on their annual iOS review, it is good to see a return to this more detailed, useful content.

If you haven’t come across this regular series, iPad Diaries. Go back through some of the old posts, there are some great tips for working exclusively on the iPad. Some of them will be a little dated since iOS 11. But with all the little automations and workarounds to sift through, you are bound to find some good ideas for working smarter on that slab of glass.

Be warned though, you might end up cycling through a lot of different apps. Students with a penchant for procrastination are particularly vulnerable.

Workflow 1.7.7 Brings Drag and Drop Integration, iPhone X Support, and More iOS 11 Changes – MacStories

Workflow Updated.png

As usual, MacStories has the full scoop on updates to Workflow. This is timely. I needed a prompt to write up some citation workflows for students I have been playing with. Writing any detail about the release itself is redundant. Viticci has that completely covered,

The marquee addition of this release is full support for drag and drop in iOS 11, which is especially impressive on the iPad as it allows you to trigger actions based on content you drop into a workflow. In the original Workflow, if you wanted to feed external content (text, images, links, videos, etc.) to actions, you had to manually select an item from a native picker, use the iOS clipboard, or use Workflow's action extension in other apps. The system worked well, but it was neither fast nor intuitive.

macOS High Sierra: Safari’s iOS Style Permissions

New Reasons To Use Safari

There was a time that Safari was a clunky, annoying browser that you could install on Windows.  To be fair, pretty much all browsers met that criteria at one time. Things change. In this week’s show and tell I included a link from The Verge, who are shipping Safari as the best reason to upgrade your Mac to High Sierra. So far it’s hard to argue with that. With features added to both iOS 11 and macOS, there is a lot to like about the development of Safari. Of particular interest is the new ability to control some of the internet's more annoying tendencies with Safari's iOS style permissions

This is one of the areas that I have tried to balance security concerns with usability. I haven't always felt comfortable with the results. For a time I used a tricked out install of Firefox, in accordance with one of my favourite privacy resources. The industry around tracking and data collection is so cunning that extensions can become a data point for tracking in themselves. This is one of many reasons the evolution of Safari has become so interesting, moving protection to within the webkit framework brings that balance a little closer.

Safari's iOS Style Permissions on macOS

It is the new granular approach to permissions that I am most impressed with. Particularly on macOS. Safari itself now contains the kind of detailed permissions that we are used to applying on a per app basis for iOS. Something I find incredibly annoying — and invasive — is having websites try to send me push notifications. Who in their right mind would want their browser to badger them all day long? It's more than just an annoyance, though. While some of the older security issues of Push have been incrementally addressed, by design they provide another means for tracking. Look closely and you will notice there is an irony in the way Apple is implicated in the origins of this. Thankfully, they are getting better at addressing these — perhaps unintended — consequences. Notifications are among the many things addressed in the new ability to control permissions for Safari. The upside of Push, it is a permission based protocol. So ultimately, it is one of the web’s annoyances that we can actually opt out of, and now without much trouble. It is not the only one.

 

Safari's iOS style permissions
If you allow sites to request permission to send notifications, you will have the option to allow or deny on a site by site basis. Permission can be revoked via the Safari preferences

 

The influence of the mobile platform on macOS is becoming more and more obvious. The rollout of Continuity has no doubt made this inevitable, but we have seen more and more features make the crossover. From small, but important additions like Night Shift, to the way iOS devices have been the testing ground for significant new technologies. From a user standpoint, I feel the most significant, visible influence right now is the approach to permissions. The improved preference allow a user to block an entire category. Or you can manage them on a case by cade basis. Like iOS, you can manage access to the microphone and camera, access to location, and notifications. Then there are usability features, like the ability to turn on Reader mode by default for particular sites.  And, you can now put an end to those pesky auto-pay videos — you know who you are… Macworld.

Safari's iOS style permissions
This particular feature has been a hit, and with good reason. Autoplay is one of the most obnoxious features that internet advertisers have invented.

 

 

You can access all of these permissions in Safari’s preferences. Or, if you want to change settings on the fly, you can right-click — or ctrl + click — on a website’s name in the omnibar, and select Settings for this Website…

Improvements to Safari macOS
Settings for individual sites can be adjusted, or controlled from the address bar

Gaining Control

The reality of the modern internet is it is a cesspit of shady behaviour by supposedly legitimate actors. Without even getting into the relevant arguments, the performance of websites is a case in itself for having control over the excess. I won’t lean into the rest of the story here, I can make my case another time. Suffice to say, there are good reasons to have some control over this. I will say that Apple’s interventions are doubly interesting, considering the industry built up around its fandom. Apple related sites are some of the worstoffenders too. My sense is there is much more nuance to this than you can glean from the exploding heads who are worried about their wallets. The argument that Apple is doing more to save advertising than harm it in these moves, should carry water with anyone thinking clearly.

But Webkit more generally has ushered in significant, positive changes. Especially when it comes to performance. Webkit also provides significant advantages for the implementation of content Blockers. One of many reasons Safari is starting to back up some of it’s claims.

Reasons to use Safari Browser on iOS

iOS users have had good reason to keep an alternative browser around. I still keep iCab Mobile on hand, for all the little things it can do. It has always been like a browsing pocketknife. It really is the only genuinely extensible, standalone browser on iOS. 1 The built-in download manager retains its utility, even as we move into the brave new world of the iOS Files App. For as long as I have been an iOS user, anytime I hit a road block while browsing, I knocked it over with iCab. However, Safari is extensible insofar as iOS itself is extensible. As the operating system has improved, so too have the default apps. Like other native apps, it is the system wide hooks that make it so useful. 2 From handoff, to iCloud synced history, bookmarks and reading list. All of these features are available system wide. Where third-party developers have cottoned on to the beauty of app extensions, iOS has improved out of sight. With Apple taking possession of Workflow, this is only going to get better.

From the more incremental improvements in iOS 10, it is hard to argue that Safari is Apple’s most mature, even its best iOS app. In iOS 11, Safari comes loaded with all kinds of new tricks. Like macOS, there is further control granted to user permissions. Although, it is more clear the influence iOS has had on the Mac. There is also the addition of WebRTC and media capture, and even access to experimental features. Nobody could argue that iOS — the iPhone in particular —hasn’t significantly influenced web technology. One of its most significant achievements is surely that hand it played in burying Flash. I would argue that this trend is going to continue through the extension of new features in Safari.

Look Again

If, for whatever reason, you have held on to the impression that Safari is a clunky waste of time, trust me it is worth another look. You don’t have to go far to find lingering impressions of the browser are outdated. 3 I know, I was a subscriber to that view. Even for established users, there are new reasons to to use Safari. The changes in macOS High Sierra and iOS 11 are impressive. Apple has found a way to make privacy its point of difference. While I would urge people to see that for what it is, I'm not churlish enough to overlook the way it benefits users. These a big improvements.

  1. Despite what other browsers may claim
  2. The Notes App is a particularly good example of this.
  3. The icon in that link was replaced more than 3 years ago. The browser is unrecognisable from that time.

App Store Still Available in special Version of iTunes

In case you haven’t seen this yet. There is still a version of iTunes that includes the App Store. Apple recently removed the App Store from iTunes on the desktop. Given it had been such an integral part of the way so many people manage their devices, it is understandable that it was received as a wind up in some quarters. If a backdoor is going to turn up anywhere, it is bound to be on Reddit. And so it goes.

There is a process involved. But if you need access to your library of apps on the desktop for any reason. Or you are bloody minded enough to want to take this all work again while you can. This is what you need.

Perhaps the biggest problem with how this change was handled is that it came out of the blue. Users updated iTunes as they normally would. Upon opening it the message was delivered. No more iOS App Store on the Mac — or Windows for that matter. This workaround is not ideal, but it does exist.

Nebo: Handwriting Recognition on iPad Pro

iPad Handwriting Recogniton

Not too long ago, I wrote about handwritten note taking on the iPad. At the time I hadn’t yet spent much time with Myscript Nebo, but having since addressed that I feel it is appropriate to update the ledger. One of the caveats I put in front of that previous effort was the ability to take long form notes without the need of an Apple Pencil, so if you are looking at options for taking notes on the standard iPad, or you simply want to avoid the further cost of the Pencil, then what I the previous post still holds. For handwriting without the Apple Pencil, to my mind the best two options are still GoodNotes and Notability, and I have briefly covered the various tradeoffs users face with both apps. Both of those apps also have excellent Apple Pencil support, but having played with Nebo some more, to my mind there is no contest when it comes to handwriting recognition.

The Future of Handwriting

 

Handwriting Recognition iOS
Even the sketchiest of handwriting is no problem for Nebo’s handwriting recognition engine

People like to talk about killer apps, personally I don’t much like the phrase, but where Nebo is concerned, it really does seem like a killer for the competition. Apps like Notes Plus have been available in the App Store for some time, but while that might have led to advancements in the inking engines and textual recognition, those improvements are more often than not accompanied by either feature bloat, user interface baggage, or both. This is one of the areas that Nebo excels, the interface is minimalist without being too sparse, and rather than holding to the now dated skeuomorphic design philosophy that once ruled the iOS-sphere, Myscript have managed to tastefully incorporate hybrid analogue elements that remain necessary for a successful handwriting workflow. Writing between the lines is as helpful to your wonky adult scribbles as it was to your long-forgetten spelling homework.

It is not only the user interface that benefits from such careful balance, but the user experience is characterised by clever gestures that complement a natural writing workflow. With Pencil gestures a user can delete a word by scribbling it out, insert line breaks, join and seperate words with simple upward and downward strokes. Framing words, highlighting, underlining and a variety of bullets enable simple but effective formatting that not only stops short of overkill, but is simple to learn. The most impressive aspect of these formatting gestures is the resulting seamless workflow that avoids interrupting one’s note-taking on input.

Handwriting Recognition iPad
Editing text, like input, is managed with the Apple Pencil

The one area that the Pencil-centric interface can get a little tricky is in editing text after capture. Nebo’s handwriting recognition works in real-time, so if necessary you can make corrections on the fly [1]. If you happen to overlook a mistake until you have confirmed the conversion from handwriting into text, editing is still managed with the Apple Pencil. This is a reversal of the analogue to digital workflow, so while it is not difficult as such, I have to admit it takes a little getting used to. Regardless, Nebo still manages to capture the fine balance between a digital tool and an analogue workflow, something I feel other apps have come close to doing without quite getting there.

Nothing is Perfect

iOS 11 Nebo Notes App
Multitasking in iOS 11 with Nebo

At the risk of being hypocritical, there are things that Nebo cannot do that I like to have in a notes app. I confess to hypocrisy for a couple of reasons, for one I have something of an old-skool reverence for what is known as the Unix philosophy, which simply stated is ‘do one thing and do it well’. It seems to me that – whether intentional or not – by design, iOS is almost the ideal realisation of this modular approach. Nebo is exactly this kind of app, it does one thing, and it does it exceptionally well. However, defining the boundaries of that one thing is what developers have to contend with in balancing the features they include, and support in their apps. The decision that I find most confounding in Nebo is the inability to annotate PDF documents, which I feel is made more conspicuous in its absence by the fact that you can import images for markup, and you can export text as PDF. This is no more than a minor quibble, and as I say, a somewhat hypocritical one at that.

The Little Things

To be honest, I often force myself to handwrite, knowing full well the proven benefits. Fortunately, Nebo has some tricks that take advantage of the relative speed of analogue input, making it a more obvious choice for certain tasks. For example, the ability to export text to HTML means a quick and dirty blog post is only a few scribbles away. Dedicated math objects can perform solvable operations – and the resultant text can be converted for further editing in any LaTeX editor [2]. I would ordinarily open up Soulver for simple calculations, but that is not always necessary now. Nebo will also turn your ropey diagrams into congruent shapes for flow charts and mind maps. And, of course, optical character recognition means all of your text is searchable.

Nebo is not perfect, but there is no doubt that Myscript have pushed the envelope with handwriting recognition. If you have an iPad Pro, I would almost go as far to say that Nebo is enough to make picking up an Apple Pencil worth your while.


  1. Again, the handwriting recognition is remarkable, so you hardly ever need to do this  ↩

  2. Trust me, this is candy for math nerds  ↩

Jordan Merrick’s Excellent Workflow Directory

Until Workflow created its own, Jordan Merrick was host to one of the best curated collections of Workflows one could hope to find. The directory was understandably taken down with the advent of an official version, which briefly included a mechanism for sharing workflows among the community of users. Apple’s acquisition of the Workflow team scuppered that initiative, insofar as they have kept open the official gallery within the app, but closed down the community aspect. Thankfully, generous users like Merrick have once again filled the breach. From JordanMerrick.com

In December 2016, I announced that I’d no longer be updating Workflow Directory. The Workflow team had made some great improvements to the gallery, the biggest of which was user submissions. At the time, it didn’t make sense to continue working on the site when the built-in feature was so much better.

Fast forward to March 2017 and the news broke that Apple had acquired Workflow. While the app continues to be updated, the gallery is not accepting user submissions. Since then, I had often wondered if it’d make sense to reopen Workflow Directory.

So I’ve decided to do just that, but in the process I’ve made a fundamental change. After testing the waters last week with a similar endeavor, Workflow Directory into a GitHub repository. Existing workflows have been migrated (with the exception of a few that are non-functional) and I’ve added a few new ones too. Each workflow has an accompanying README containing a description.

Workflow Automation iOS
How's this for meta, this is a framed shot of the very workflow that framed it…

Workflow remains a glaring gap on this site. To be fair, I’ve not been at this too long, but the real reason is the art to doing the app justice. There are some ingenious users around creating incredibly inventive workflows. By way of qualification for the link to Jordan Merrick.com consider that every image posted on this site that is framed with an iPad or iPhone mockup has been created with either this Workflow, or its predecessor. Not only is it one of the best uses of the app I have come across, but it has saved me epic amounts of time.

There has been a lot of conjecture around the future of the Workflow app, but not only has the app continued to receive updates, the signs are good for some form of future integration into iOS [^ Perhaps even beyond, one can only hope]. The design language of visual automation hits the sweet spot between the über nerd and curious tinkerer, lowering the bar for entry by a remarkable degree. If you are worried that you might pour a lot of energy into something that is fated to disappear, I truly doubt that will happen in such a way that will render your learnings obsolete. The visual programming paradigm that has its roots in Automator has been so well refined for touch interaction by Workflow, that it is here to stay in one form or another. On the flip side, with initiatives like the Workflow Directory, if you swish to do so, you can get a fair amount of mileage out of the app without building any workflows of your own, or at least by adapting some to your own purposes. Of course, if you already have the chops, there is plenty of karma to be gained by pitching in to the directory with a contribution.